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Jul 16 2016
by Eva Wetzel

5 Reasons Everyone Should Read Classic Literature

By Eva Wetzel - Jul 16 2016
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People tend to see classic books as the written equivalent of Brussels sprouts; we read them because we have to, not because we enjoy it. Stuffy worksheets and 2,000-word essays have drilled a mind-numbing image of the classics into our brains. This impression isn't our fault--I blame the way many Lit classes are taught--but it is just plain wrong, and I’m here to tell you why. Though it may turn you into a supernerd, you should start reading the old stuff right now because…

1. It will help you understand your favorite books and movies.

“Faust,” “Hamlet,” “1984." All of these classic works are constantly referenced in modern culture, and their influence can be found from Disney movies to your favorite music. They may even serve as inspiration for you to make your own art! Example: “Breaking Bad” once teased their finale with an epic reading of the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley. Modern novels also tend to throw out references left and right. And finally, through classic lit, you can find the root of many modern cultural phenomena--such as where, exactly, the idea of a sexy vampire came from (probably "The Vampyre" by John Polidori, for the record).

2. The authors’ lives are weirder than fiction. 

There's a reason that pop-rap musical "Hamilton" is so popular despite being about a man born in the 18th century--people's lives back then were, um, INSANE. Take Lord Byron, one of the greatest British poets. He was a 19th-century Romantic famous for writing the poem “Don Juan”… but also for (apparently) being the hottest man in England. Born with a club foot and teased relentlessly in school, Byron grew up to be the first modern superstar. The phenomenon was literally called “Byromania.” Countless women wrote him asking for an autograph or lock of luscious brown hair, which was always fabulous because he slept with curling paper in it every night. Byron traveled Europe whilst romancing both men and women, and would nowadays be called bisexual. He was a vegetarian and over his lifetime he owned a menagerie of pets including a bear, monkeys, an eagle, a crow, peacocks, an Egyptian crane and a badger. He also referred to another Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, as “Turdsworth.” Byron fell ill and died--no doubt having left a trail of broken hearts behind--at age 36 while commanding an army of Greek rebels, which is about as weird and random as it sounds, especially seeing as he had no military experience. Where’s his musical?! Byron's other poet friends also got into trouble: Percy Shelley, the nerd to Byron's rock star, was bullied in high school in daily mob torment incidents the other boys called "Shelley-baits" until he cried out in a high, cracking soprano voice. Still, he loved science and once blew up a tree on campus with gunpowder for fun. Later, he was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet supporting atheism.

The biographies of classic authors are bizarre, interesting and often involve petty insults (see: Turdsworth).

3. Actually researching each classic is eye-opening…and often fun.

Did you know that Bram Stoker, the author of "Dracula," came up with the idea of a vampire king during a nightmare he experienced after eating too much crab meat with mayonnaise sauce? And that Count Dracula was originally supposed to be named Count Wampyre?

On a more serious note, discovering context is an important step in appreciating the work, and if you do some online research, you’ll find out quickly that your Lit class omitted lots of interesting stuff. You may even end up having your own strong opinion about, say, “Lord of the Flies” that contradicts (or builds upon) the ideas on SparkNotes. Just choose the classic book that interests you the most and start digging! The entertaining, free YouTube series Crash Course English Literature with John Green serve as a good launching point for finding something you'll like.

4. It will improve your writing ability and impress employers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love reading modern authors, news websites and YA romance novels. In my experience, however, some YA authors feel the need to simplify things when writing for teens. Similarly, popular news aggregate sites use simple language — and it’s a major problem. This study found that students who read primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) consistently showed lower writing complexity in their cover letters, while those who read literature and academic journals showed higher ability. Fortunately, people like Shakespeare and good ol’ “Turdsworth” are the solution. According to a study at Liverpool University, these authors' complex language caused greater brain activity in participants. The brain is a muscle, and the unique sentence structures and vocabularies present in classic works are a workout. The English language has over one million words! You just might find a new favorite.

5. They make life more beautiful.

The thing that really killed the classics in school for me was the clinical environment in which we examined them. We were railroaded into tedious reading questions and listless class discussions where most of our peers hadn’t even read the assignment. We were asked to examine poems without any contextual information about the author nor time period, which usually felt like torture rather than meaningful words written by another human. But if we take those books and poems, actually sit down with them, feel no pressure of the impending due date or essay… it’s possible to really, really connect with a work, actually relate it to our own life and discover why it’s called “classic.” It takes is an adventurous spirit and some discipline to read deeply, but it’s possible. In the words of Walt Whitman, “in any roof’d room of a house I emerge not, nor in company, / And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead.”

Though I could go on, these are the main reasons that convinced me to incorporate literature into my life far after receiving my final English grades. In fact, though reading questions can certainly help foster new ideas, my experience with these works vastly improved as soon as I stopped thinking about grades or the symbols I was supposed to find. All you have to do is take some time out of your day to find a quiet place, maybe get a cup of tea and just start reading some geniunely awesome prose. I think you'll feel the same way.

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Eva Wetzel - University of California, Los Angeles

Eva Wetzel will attend her first year at the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall. She's majoring in English -- whatever that means -- and spent her time in high school writing for the school paper and online publication, with a couple of assorted school plays in between. She was also inducted into her school's Spanish Honors Society. Eva enjoys listening to obscure off-Broadway musicals, getting too emotionally invested in fictional situations and putzing around on YouTube.

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